Canada Initiative Offers Opportunity for Southern Cameroons Peace Process
Pre-talks between Cameroon’s government and Anglophone separatists, facilitated by Canada, have opened the door to a long-overdue peace process, but Yaoundé has baulked. The government should embrace these talks, while domestic and external actors should put their full weight behind the initiative.
Having cooperated with efforts to bring Cameroon’s government and Anglophone separatists into formal peace talks, Yaoundé should now commit to participate in them. On 20 January, Canada’s foreign minister, Mélanie Joly, announced that the two sides had agreed to start peace negotiations. The announcement raised hopes that there might be a way out of the grinding seven-year conflict in mostly Francophone Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions, the North West and South West. For months, Ottawa had led secret “pre-talks” that seemingly helped the two sides overcome key hurdles to initiating a formal dialogue. Shortly after Joly’s comments, Anglophone leaders issued a joint statement affirming their commitment to participate in negotiations with Canada’s facilitation. But three days later, Cameroon’s government brushed aside Canada’s efforts, denying that it had asked a “foreign party” to broker a resolution to the conflict. The denial revealed deep divisions among top Cameroonian officials and came as a surprise, given Yaoundé’s previous engagement in the Canada-led pre-talks. While this last-minute rejection after months of careful work was a blow to peace efforts, the government can and should correct its course and get the talks on track.
Yaoundé’s brusque dismissal of Canada’s initiative leaves talks in limbo and risks perpetuating, or even escalating, the conflict. Separatist militias immediately responded to the government’s statement with a fresh campaign of violence in the North West and South West regions, erecting roadblocks and firing rocket-propelled grenades at army convoys. Their leaders started discussing the possibility of bringing the militias under a single command or organising joint operations against security forces under the banner of a united Southern Cameroon military front. In Yaoundé, meanwhile, the defence ministry launched a drive to recruit nearly 9,500 new soldiers. Its special forces stepped up patrols in the Anglophone regions and attacked separatist positions.
After seven years of hostilities in the Anglophone regions, the prospect that the parties might miss an opportunity to put hostilities behind them is jarring. The trouble in the North West and South West regions began in October 2016, when lawyers and teachers led protests calling for a two-state federation to preserve the Anglophone legal and educational systems, which they felt were being encroached upon by the Francophone-led central government. The military’s heavy-handed response to peaceful calls for greater autonomy prompted Anglophones to form militias, leading to armed conflict the following year. Since 2017, the fighting has claimed over 6,000 lives in the Anglophone regions and displaced nearly 800,000 people. Making up 60 per cent of the displaced population, women and children face differentiated risks, including gender-based violence and child trafficking. Recent estimates state that the conflict has disrupted the education of over 700,000 children.
Yaoundé has thus far been reluctant to consider a political settlement with the separatists.
Yaoundé has thus far been reluctant to consider a political settlement with the separatists. Previous peace initiatives have foundered. In January 2017, the government suspended negotiations with Anglophone civil society leaders in the city of Bamenda, in the North West region, before arresting them, triggering widespread Anglophone calls for the two regions’ secession. In 2019, President Paul Biya ignored a Swiss offer to facilitate talks, instead organising what purported to be a national conference, but without inviting the most influential separatist leaders. In April 2020, Cameroonian officials began talks with imprisoned separatist leaders, only to suddenly call them off after a second encounter in July of that year. In October 2022, while again rejecting Swiss efforts to push forward with their initiative, the government started low-level consultations with Anglophone leaders in the diaspora. This time around, the separatists’ discretion and clear commitment to finding a resolution persuaded some in Yaoundé to participate at senior levels in pre-talks, with Ottawa’s facilitation, leading observers to believe that the government was ready to take the next step and fully engage in formal talks.
It should. Committing to the Canada-facilitated peace initiative would allow President Biya to change the perception that he has little interest in a political solution, prevent yet another escalation of the conflict and contribute to stabilising the country ahead of elections that are likely to be fraught. The presidential, legislative and local polls due in 2025 are already fuelling familiar political and ethnic tensions that tend to surface during election cycles. Politicians from rival power blocs are positioning themselves to succeed Biya, who has served as president for 40 years and will turn 90 later in February. Cameroon has not seen a single democratic transfer of power since gaining its independence in 1960 and has a history of contested polls, leaving the 2025 elections freighted with uncertainty. Among other reasons for concern, separatist militias forced many Anglophones to boycott votes in 2018 and 2020.
If formal negotiations proceed, they will benefit from good work done in the pre-talk phase. Those pre-talks set as a priority the establishment of confidence-building measures, such as a cessation of hostilities, protection of the right to education and the release of prisoners. Reaching agreement on some or all of these in the next phase of dialogue could ease the suffering of millions of Cameroonians. Building on these achievements, the talks could then turn to issues that will be at the core of any settlement, such as designing a consensual political reconfiguration of the Anglophone regions; reforming the security sector; disarming the rebels; establishing transitional justice mechanisms to address abuses committed over the course of the conflict; and launching economic reconstruction.
Already the Canada-facilitated initiative has yielded clear benefits.
Already the Canada-facilitated initiative has yielded clear benefits. Anglophone faith leaders (Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Muslims and Anglicans), as well as civil society and women’s groups, are more supportive of the prospective Canada talks than of previous initiatives. More critically, the facilitation has also persuaded rival separatist movements to form an orderly bloc. Drawing on earlier efforts by Swiss facilitators, Canada managed to bring together four major separatist groups, with a fifth announcing its commitment to the peace process after Joly’s statement. In the past, separatist groups appeared too divided to reach consensus among themselves. This time around, their unity offers the Cameroonian government a clear counterpart in negotiations.
Key outside interlocutors – including France, Germany, Switzerland, the UK, the U.S. and the Vatican, and multilateral organisations such as the African Union, European Union and UN – should urge Cameroon not to miss this opportunity. They should underscore the benefits that a commitment to formal talks would bring Yaoundé on the security, humanitarian and diplomatic fronts. Should the impasse be overcome, Canada should convene an inclusive discussion among interested Cameroonian parties that would allow them to agree on a negotiation framework that addresses the two sides’ concerns about the agenda for future talks.
To set the talks up for success, Ottawa should seek a public commitment from the Cameroonian government to stick with the process and clarify misconceptions among some Cameroonian parties that Canada seeks a bigger role than to facilitate or is driving toward a particular outcome. For their part, Cameroon’s government and separatist movements should work closely with faith leaders, women’s groups, civil society organisations and politicians to build domestic support for the talks, as suggested by Yaoundé in its 23 January statement. Outside parties should monitor progress closely and provide persistent support, and France should use its close relationship with Cameroon to press for positive momentum.
Progress toward an enduring settlement has not come easily. The tumultuous relationship between Cameroon’s Anglophones and the central government is marked by years of frustration, mistrust and, since 2017, gruesome violence. Unpacking and addressing the two sides’ differences will take time, effort and good faith. The Canada-facilitated process represents a crucial chance to begin this long-overdue work. All those with an interest in the peaceful resolution of Cameroon’s festering Anglophone conflict should do what they can to ensure this opportunity is not squandered.
Culled from International Crisis Group